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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is clearly a "B" level film but it's a well made one that handles
itself pretty well and possesses a cast that uplifts the material just
enough to make most critics look at it with some fondness. Story is
about a state prison that has a giant wall separating the men's side
from the women's and the superintendent in charge of the female inmates
is Amelia van Zandt (Ida Lupino) who is very strict and issues out
harsh discipline at every turn. A new inmate is brought in named Helene
Jensen (Phyllis Thaxter) but she's mentally unable to adjust to her new
surroundings and after being put in a padded cell with a straight
jacket on she lapses into a coma.
*****SPOILER ALERT***** The prison doctor is Dr. Crane (Howard Duff) who dislikes van Zandt's methods and he tries to protect Helene but once she gets better she's thrown back into the prison population where the other inmates try to help her get along. Another inmate named Joan Burton (Audrey Totter) is married to Glen (Warren Stevens) who's on the other side but he's found a way of sneaking over so that he and his wife can get intimate and eventually Joan must confess to everyone that she's pregnant. The warden cannot get Glen to divulge how he is able to make it over to the female side so it's up to van Zandt to try and get Joan to tell and she beats her senseless to the point that she and her unborn child die. Things get out of hand when word spreads about Joan's death and they take van Zandt hostage with the intent of killing her but Dr. Crane attempts to talk them out of it.
This is directed by Lewis Seiler who was a very popular and capable director and he does a good job of giving this film a distinct noir look with good uses of shadows in many scenes. While this is regarded more or less as a "B" movie I thought there were a few intangibles in the story that give this something of an edge. First, Totter sneaks off to have sex with her husband and the script doesn't shy away from the purpose of their trysts, and secondly, later in the film the story actually has her and her unborn baby die! You never really saw something that tragic occur in movies (at least not in those days) and this event gives the audience a reason to root for the inmates. Strangely, I thought the female prison looked like a pretty decent place to go! The other inmates are all kind to one another and help each other without a hint of gangs or even a single fight occurring and not only are they sociable but we see actress Vivian Marshall doing Bette Davis impersonations. Sounds like a place to go for a vacation! Although, I did laugh when I saw actress Juanita Moore on her hands and knees scrubbing the prison floor and singing "Sweet Chariot". Lupino was such a terrific actress that even though her performance can best be described as hammy it's still an incredibly effective one and there are scenes where her eyes display an evil glint. We have all seen our share of women's prison flicks and while this is clearly not one of the best it's still a well made film that boasts a good cast and is entertainingly made.
There is nothing like a good women's prison melodrama. While this one,
with its no-nonsense title, is not the equal of the classic of the
genre, Caged (1950), but no matter. It still delivers--catfights, tough
dames, tears of the wrongly accused and other delights abound.
What aficionado of 1950s movies and TV could resist a cast with Audrey Totter, Jan Sterling, Phyllis Thaxter, Howard Duff, or best of all: Ida Lupino? The latter was a fine and serious talent, but here she goes a bit overboard. Her portrayal of the prison warden is a classic example of over-the-top characterization. This warden is so monstrously evil that you want to cheer her on, just to see what she will do next. The fate of the Audrey Totter character is a case in point: Lupino's warden is insanely, jealously demonic toward this prisoner. (In fact, it weighs against the plausibility of the movie--how did this person get to be the warden?) The actress flirts dangerously with camp, and occasionally achieves it with extremely entertaining results.
A great choice for a rainy Friday night.
Ida Lupino gets one of her juiciest roles here. It may not be one of
her subtlest but she gets to sink her teeth into it. She is the
conniving, heartless, loveless warden of the title institution.
The inmates include blowzy dames from various studios. It's a great cast. We have Jan Sterling, Audrey Totter, and Cleo Moore. Moore is sans Hugo Haas.
It's a trifle hard to believe the plot. A co-ed prison where the women are abused. But though it may not be terribly cogent, it's strong. It's forceful.
Early in the movie Juanita Hall, playing a character named Polly, is introduced. She says she was named after the hospital where she was born: Polyclinic. Hey, I was born there, too. Maybe I should have been named Clint.
Watch this one. It's not campy. It can be taken very seriously. But it's also fun to see all these dolls cracking wise and playing tough.
(There may be Spoilers) Prison drama set in a woman's prison where the
head superintendent Amelia Van Zandt, Ida Lupino,is far more dangerous
to the inmates as well as the prison staff then the most hardened
criminals in there.
Constantly having the women under her control beaten and abused, which Amelia herself is very found of doing, creates a climate of terror in he clink that erupts into a full-scale prison riot at the end of the movie. We first get to see Amelia in action as soon as the movie "Women's Prison" starts with her handling of new prisoner Helene Jensen, Phillis Thaxter. Helene convicted of manslaughter, she ran over a little girl, is put into isolation and by the next day is almost dead from shock. This despite the objections by the prison doctor Crane, Howard Duff,that keeping Helene in a cell by herself for any period of time may well kill her.
The women's prison being connected to a mans prison is also causing problems with prisoner Glen Burton,Warren Stevens, sneaking into the women's lockup and having, among other things, conjugal relations with his wife who's a prisoner like himself Joan, Audrey Tottor, that leads to her becoming pregnant.With the news of Joan's pregnancy hitting Warden Block, Barry Kelly, like a lighting bolt he has Women Superintendent Amelia Van Zandt put on the carpet. Warden Block warns her that if she doesn't find out how Joan's husband Glen, it seems obvious to everyone that he's the baby's father,got into the women's section of the prison she'll be out of a job.
Amelia now in a panic of losing her job as head of the women's prison has poor Joan, who doesn't know how Glen got into the women's prison, beaten and tortured to the point where she lapse into a coma. Dr. Crane finding out what was happening to Joan has both Amelia and Warden Block put on notice that he'll report them to higher ups by, if Joan passes away, signing Joan Burton's death certificate with the cause of her death being murder. Thing quickly start to get out of hand when the women prisoners lead by Joan's friend and cell-mate Brenda, Jan Sterling, start a hunger strike over the treatment Joan got from Amelia and that leads to a prison takeover by the women prisoners with Amelia taken hostage.
Glen again breaking into the womens wing of the prison finds his wife in the hospital ward on life-support being attended by Dr. Crane. After Joan tells Glen she'll be waiting for him, no matter how long it takes with their child, to greet him when he's finally released from prison she suddenly passes away! That drives Glen into a mad frenzy pulling out a gun and going looking for his wife's murder the universally, by now everyone in the movie, hated Superintendent Amelia Van Zandt.
Wild shootout with Glen braving bullets and tear gas canisters to get to Amelia and meet out justice for what she did to his wife Joan. Amelia is save by Dr. Crane from being beaten and shot to death by the women inmates and Glen, who's himself shot by the prison guards. You can see by now that Amelia's mind already snapped and she's to end up in a straight-jacket and padded cell like many of the women prisoners she put under the same conditions due to her sadistic and hateful dislike of the women that she was in charge of.
It later turned out that Amlia's inhuman actions were the result of her not being able to attract any man, even though she was very attractive, to marry her because of her rottenness and unbalanced and overly suspicious mindset.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The title pretty much says it all, and conveys what the viewer might
expect to see in a low budget feature like this one from the 1950's.
Ida Lupino stars as the tough minded, non-compassionate superintendent
of a woman's prison, in a picture that starts out fairly mundane but
gets rolling with all manner of evil machinations on the part of Van
Zandt (Lupino). The core stories involve a housewife serving a
manslaughter sentence for the accidental death of a young girl, and a
female prisoner who gets pregnant by her husband during a surreptitious
visit from the men's side of the prison. Should tell you what kind of a
life this kid would have had.
To say there are plot holes and continuity problems galore here would be an understatement. As if to underscore the point, I got a kick out of the conversation between the two prison matrons about half way through the movie, when Miss Saunders (Mae Clarke) states she likes to pick out the flaws in prison movies. I came up with a bunch without even trying. First off, when inmate Brenda (Jan Sterling) dropped the newly laundered and pressed clothes upon discovering Joan and Glen in the storeroom, she picks up a pile of completely disheveled garments as if they just came out of a dryer! Secondly, soon after Brenda burns her hand intentionally in the clothes press, she's shown helping Joan get to her feet after she faints, and her hand clearly shows no injury. Later on in the story, when Dr. Crane (Howard Duff) goes looking for Van Zandt, he wakes up a woman prisoner who tells him that the inmates have taken over - how did she know that if she was sleeping?
A break before I continue. Though she didn't have a large role, Vivian Marshall was entertaining as the would be Shakespearean actress doing Bette Davis and Talullah Bankhead impressions. That was a clever set up for her to imitate the voices of Matron Sturges and Van Zandt later in the flick when all heck is about to break loose.
Back to the goofy stuff. How was it that after only one day in jail, Dr. Crane tells Helene Jensen that he'll bring her three letters from her husband. And after she's read them, he'll exchange them for three more! That Mr. Jensen sure must have liked to write!
I don't even want to get into how easily Glen Burton (Warren Stevens) managed to make his way from the men's prison to the women's side at will. You'd think that after the first time, the warden would have put a tail on him to figure out how he did it, instead of relying on Van Zandt to beat it out of the Mrs. By the time Burton whips out a gun during the hectic finale, it looks like one of the more believable elements of the story.
But you know, even with all this nonsense going on, the story managed to keep my interest during it's entire hour and a half run. Each of the characterizations, even the minor roles was entertaining. It was worth it to get to the point where Crane orders the straight jacket for Van Zandt as she's about to take off for la-la land.
OK, two more. How is it that Jensen, serving one to ten for that manslaughter charge gets released after about the two weeks of the film's story?
And the name of the black woman prisoner in the role call - O'Shaughnessy???
Ida Lupino and Howard Duff head a cast in a story about a Women's
Prison. But these two who were married in real life at the time are
hardly romantic leads in this film.
Ida plays the head of a female division of a state prison, the overall warden is Barry Kelley. The message the film is trying to give although the reason for it is pretty exotic is that boys will be boys and that women ought to be in a separate facility altogether. The main plot line of this film is convict Warren Stevens trying to get over to the women's division to see his wife Audrey Totter. Stevens's successful visits which get Totter pregnant get the whole thing crashing around Lupino's head.
It's all been done before, especially by some in this cast. Howard Duff was one of the convicts in Brute Force and there are definite elements of that film carrying over here. More so even than the classic Caged in which Jan Sterling also played the same kind of brassy dame who knows the ropes.
In Caged you'll remember the chief villain was the sadistic guard Harper played by Hope Emerson, the warden was the sympathetic Agnes Moorehead. Here the corruption stinks at the top where Lupino takes out her own unfulfilled life on the inmates. The entire cast performs remarkably well, especially Lupino and Sterling.
As for how it ends, if you've seen another Ida Lupino classic, They Drive By Night than you kind of know what happens to her. Still Women's Prison is worth seeing it again.
Women's Prison (1955)
This highlights Ida Lupino, and though her role is central it is small. She plays that hardened, selfish "dame" she pulled off in many of her movies like no one else, in this case a prison warden. Lupino is never campy like Bette Davis, or sultry like many others (even when she wants to be). She's also not idiosyncratic like Gloria Grahame, and this is good and bad. Lupino here and often elsewhere is a stalwart presence--she holds up her end of the bargain in any scene, without stealing the scene.
Her counterpart, even though this is mainly a woman's movie top to bottom, is the doctor played by Howard Duff. But the real stars are the prisoners, an array of women both confident and downtrodden. (Look for Juanita Moore, from "Imitation of Life.") Having these women revolt against Lupino's evilness is what we all want, and it's quite a drama.
There are many times when you will groan or laugh at what the plot gets away with (like the husband who sneaks in to see his wife, or the warden of the men's prison in general), but you'll really love the best parts, the best character actors who are really filled with character, and the fast plot. A good short fun one.
Your standard babes behind bars flick with the usual assortment of scenarios. This one is slightly different in that the men and women share a prison, separated only by a wall. This leads to an unusual scenario where a fella sneaks in to the other side and impregnates his wife, which eventually provides the film with its inmates-take-over-the-prison climax. Most notable is the star-studded cast. Ida Lupino is the sadistic warden, hamming it up delightfully. Howard Duff is the sympathetic doctor. Among the more memorable inmates are Cleo Moore, Audrey Totter, Phyllis Thaxter, Juanita Moore (introduced in the painfully undignified position of scrubbing floors while singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), Jan Sterling and Vivian Marshall. The movie is kind of fun and moves swiftly, but is too formulaic and lacking in nuance. CAGED is a far better option.
Women's Prison is directed by Lewis Seiler and jointly written by Jack
DeWitt and Crane Wilbur. It stars Ida Lupino, Jan Sterling, Cleo Moore,
Audrey Totter, Phyliss Thaxter, Howard Duff and Warren Stevens. Music
is orchestrated by Mischa Bakaleinikoff and photography by Lester H.
Cheap but entertaining piece of prison shlock, Women's Prison gets in and simmers on the heat for an hour and ten minutes until the inevitable explosion for the finale. The standard roll call of prison staples adheres to formula, new fish who clearly doesn't belong, sassy good time gal, sadistic warden, beatings, emotional hell, sexual frustration and of course a riot! There's solid traces of psychological discord in the narrative, not least with Lupino's splendidly vile warden, who, because she can't function with men on the outside world, promptly vents her pent up frustrations on the female inmates. A nice addition to the plot is that it's a co-ed prison, the mens prison is but a bricked wall away from the girls. Cue a neat little thread of a lustful Warren Stevens popping next door for some fun time with his also incarcerated wife.
Problem with the film is its look. Mood is fine but this is one of the nicest, cleanest and airiest prisons seen in film! Isolation and claustrophobia are a key ingredients of a good prison film, but those feelings are missing here, with Lester White's photography hardly utilising the chances on offer. How the film has come to be regarded as a "prison noir" is a mystery, unless the mere presence of Lupino warrants it a place?! The steam press room scenes work well, and the tear gas finale is nicely realised, but mostly this is good because of some neat lady acting performances and the afore mentioned psychological smarts in the story. Also of interest is the play off between Lupino and Duff's kindly prison doctor, which since they were married (an on off marriage that would last for decades), carries with it a bit of spice as they jostle for the sanity of meek Helene Jensen (Thaxter).
Subtle as a sledgehammer but ever so enjoyable, Women's Prison just about deserves its cult classic status. 7/10
What possibilities!two brassy blondes both behind bars. It's Jan
Sterling and Cleo Moore who've spread on more cheap perfume and more
hair dye in more cheap movies than I can count. I figure it should add
up to a best two-out-of-three-falls grudge match, at least. But no! Not
only don't they strip down, but they're even best friends against mean
old warden Ida Lupino in this babes behind bars flick.
Actually, the sex angle isn't played up at all. In fact, the prison dresses are shapeless and darn near reach the floor, so I'm about to hit the off button. But truth be told, with that powerhouse line-up of really good actressesLupino, Thaxter, Sterling, and TotterI hang in there expecting maybe a good heavy drama like Caged (1950), even if the girls do keep their clothes on.
But no, the writers have penciled in about every old tired gimmick in the "screws versus cons" book. And what genius thought up Lupino's wacko final scene. Plus the sets look like they cost about ten bucks, tops. I don't know how the producers got such top-notch acting talent for such a lame production, but they did. Anyway, I'm giving a jailhouse Oscar to the great Phyllis Thaxter for coming up with an A-grade sweaty performance in a Z-grade project. Meanwhile, I've sworn no more babes behind bars flicks unless I see at least one bra-strap in the first ten minutes.
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